Maldives on edge after bitterly fought presidential primary | Elections News

The Maldives’ President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih has been declared the winner of a contentious presidential primary, but his rival has yet to concede the election amid allegations of voter fraud, heightening political uncertainty in the popular Indian Ocean tourist destination.

The governing Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) said on Sunday that Solih won 61 percent of the vote while his opponent Mohamed Nasheed garnered 38 percent. The election – held on Saturday – was tense with at least five people arrested for disrupting voting and brawls breaking out between rival factions at several polling stations.

The outcome was a blow for Nasheed, who served as president from 2008 to 2012 and was the Maldives’ first democratically elected leader. Nasheed had been hoping for a comeback after a “terrorism” conviction that was widely seen as politically motivated prevented him from running in the last presidential election.

Solih, who contested the 2018 vote in Nasheed’s stead, appealed for unity after Saturday’s primary.

Speaking to a crowd of cheering supporters in the Maldivian capital, Male, the incumbent leader urged his opponent to set differences aside.

“The primary is over. Now is the time to unite and work together to win the presidential election for the MDP,” he said.

But Nasheed’s campaign said it was “still examining the results”.

In a short statement issued late on Saturday, the campaign suggested fraud, saying: “We are noticing that Nasheed is ahead in most of the ballot boxes, and his opponent is ahead because of a few boxes where an extraordinary amount of votes have been cast.” Hours earlier, Nasheed’s spokesperson, Hassan Latheef, had claimed their exit polls were showing that the former president would win 64 percent of the vote.

“Nasheed has won this election,” he wrote on Twitter.

Maldives's former President Mohamed Nasheed
The Maldives’ former President Mohamed Nasheed at a primary campaign rally in Male on January 26, 2023 [File: Fayaz Moosa/ Mihaaru via Al Jazeera]

Fraud claims

The dispute has prompted worries about a split of the MDP, a party that Nasheed co-founded and that has led a decades-long campaign for democracy in the Maldives. It has also raised concerns of new turmoil in the island nation of 500,000 people, four years after Maldivians voted out former President Abdulla Yameen, who had overseen a wide-ranging crackdown on dissent, including by jailing or forcing into exile nearly all of his political opponents.

Nasheed and Solih, childhood friends who stood together against Yameen, fell out during the campaign to topple the autocratic leader.

Their rivalry began in 2018, when the MDP’s top decision-making body voted to transfer the party’s presidential ticket from Nasheed to Solih. At the time, Nasheed – whose first stint in power had been cut short by a military mutiny and who had been sentenced to 13 years in jail on a trumped-up charge of “terrorism” – was living in exile.

He reluctantly acquiesced to Solih’s candidacy, and the veteran politician went on to defeat Yameen by a landslide.

Nasheed returned home to a hero’s welcome and won election as parliament speaker.

But he soon parted ways with the president, accusing him of inaction on corruption and violent groups affiliated with al-Qaeda and ISIL (ISIS).

Solih refutes this and claims he has brought “peace and stability” and “unparalleled development” to the Maldives after decades of turmoil.

Ahead of Saturday’s vote, Nasheed’s campaign had warned supporters to be vigilant of attempts to rig the poll.

And on the day itself, Nasheed’s supporters disrupted voting at several polling stations, accusing Solih’s supporters of stuffing ballot boxes. The allegations resulted in fistfights at some four polling stations, with people on the island of Gadhdhoo in southern Gaafu Dhaalu Atoll damaging the ballot box and tearing up some ballots. The brawl prompted voting to be suspended briefly.

The MDP election committee, however, insists the vote proceeded smoothly.

Ibrahim Waheed, the chair of the committee, called the election “very successful” and said disruptions occurred at only a handful of the 245 polling stations. The committee had received 50 complaints about the vote, he told reporters on Sunday, assuring that there had been no instances of “double voting”.

He added that 70 percent of some 57,225 eligible voters had turned out to cast their ballots.

‘Great uncertainty’

Nasheed’s supporters have rejected the assurances.

“This primary was stolen. The support for [Nasheed] is clear here,” wrote Twitter user @Mujookeynee, posting a picture of one of the former president’s well-attended campaign rallies in Male.

“Election was rigged… #Anni2023 is still on,” wrote Twitter user @HKurusee, referring to Nasheed by his nickname.

Solih’s supporters meanwhile said the president had won fair and square, on the back of a record of delivering on infrastructure projects, including water and sanitation in the Maldives’ dispersed islands. They also pointed to his successful steering of the Maldives through the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the introduction of popular policies such as free university education.

Moosa Latheef, editor at the Dhauru news website, said it was unlikely that Nasheed could have won Saturday’s vote, given the wide margin.

“Nasheed’s refusal to concede so far does not bode well for our nascent democracy,” he said.

“We are heading into a period of great uncertainty,” he said. “It’s very hard to predict what Nasheed might do.”

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